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Please don’t ride in Critical Mass tomorrow. Do your own #CoronaMass instead.

Critical Mass rules! But please don’t do it tomorrow. Photo: John Greenfield

I love Critical Mass, the bicycle parade-protest that meets on the last Friday of every month in cities all over the world. Here in Chicago, it assembles after 5:30 p.m. under the giant Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. I've been doing the ride for more than 22 years, and I credit it with launching my career in bike planning and advocacy, and I know several other Chicagoans who would say the same thing. Critical Mass is a big reason why our city currently has hundreds of miles of bike lanes, thousands of bike-share cycles, 10,000-plus bike racks, and first-class trails like The 606 elevated greenway.

The ride has taken place in Chicago every month since October 1997, rain, shine, or snow, often drawing thousand of riders for a ride that is a demonstration against car-centric policies, but also a friendly and joyful celebration of cycling, and life itself. But this Friday, and the last Friday of every month during the coronavirus pandemic, should be an exception to that rule.

As often happens during times of crisis, bicycles are truly shining as a form of transportation that allows city-dwellers to get around while maintaining safe 6'-plus "social distance" from others. That reduces crowding on public transportation, making conditions safer for transit employees and those who have no choice but to ride buses and trains.

And during a time when it's unsafe to gather indoors with non-household members for entertainment or fellowship, bicycles provide a terrific opportunity for government-approved fun in public space, including meeting up with a friend or two for a socially-distanced ride. Getting fresh air and exercise on a bike is great for maintaining your mental and physical health and relieving stress during the "Shelter in Place" era.

Chicago Critical Mass gathers in Daley Plaza. Photo: John Greenfield
Chicago Critical Mass gathers in Daley Plaza. Photo: John Greenfield
Chicago Critical Mass gathers in Daley Plaza. Photo: John Greenfield

That said, traditional Critical Mass rides should not happen tomorrow. Gathering for a large group ride would be dangerous and irresponsible, and it's currently illegal in many cities like Chicago. However, Critical Mass is a leaderless happening and there's no central authority to "cancel" the event. If people on bikes decide to show up in Daley Plaza and other gathering places to ride together tomorrow, no one but the police can stop Critical Mass from taking place. But I'm pleading with my fellow cyclists not to do that.

Some Chicago bike advocates have argued that the Mass should still happen tomorrow. "Just stay home if you're not feeling well," they say. "If we ride in a big group with 6' foot distance between cyclists, that's safe."

No. Even if you're not showing symptoms, you could easily still be a COVID-19 carrier. And while riding in a large cluster of bikes, if someone sneezes or coughs, you could ride into a cloud of respiratory droplets, potentially infecting yourself.

Most Critical Mass participants are relatively young and healthy, and therefore less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus. But they should think about the many seniors and other vulnerable people who are put at risk when people ignore social distancing guidelines and help spread the disease.

And even if you're a selfish jerk who doesn't care about causing other people's deaths, keep in mind that young people have also died or suffered permanent lung damage from COVID-19, so you really do not want to catch it. On top of that, if hospitals are over-capacity with sick people, as is currently the case in countries like Italy and Spain, and a reckless driver strikes you on your bike, when you arrive at the ER there will be no hospital bed or ventilator available for you.

Photo: Beth Medley
Photo: Beth Medley
Photo: Beth Medley

So do the right thing tomorrow and don't show up at Daley Plaza, or wherever your local Critical Mass ride gathers. Instead go for a solo spin, or a small ride with family members, roommates, or one or two other non-household friends. If the latter, be sure to maintain 6' spacing. If your local bike trail is too crowded for safe social distancing (sadly The 606 and Chicago's popular Lakefront Trail are currently closed for that reason), choose a route on quiet side streets instead.

Sure, that won't provide the camaraderie of a massive group ride, but you can snap photos of your excursion and share them on social media with the hashtag #CoronaMass. While we can't all ride together during these unprecedented times, that's one way to feel like you're not alone.

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

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